Warning: This story contains spoilers for Knives Out, Charlie’s Angels and Hustlers.
In a pivotal scene in Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s wildly entertaining whodunnit, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) is interrogated by local police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Sagan) and consulting detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), about the mysterious death of her employer, successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). In his gooey mouthful of a Southern drawl, Blanc lays out the facts: Thombey died at some point during the night after his 85th birthday party. His housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson) found him the next morning with a slit throat and a knife in his hand, an apparent suicide. Still, with most of Thrombey’s relatives in town, there are a lot of potential suspects, each with their own particular reasons to want him dead.
All depend on Thrombey for their financial well-being, and all have been threatened with ruin. Thus, a complicated web of intrigue and betrayal needs to be untangled in order to rule out foul play as a cause of death. As Thrombey’s nurse and only real confidante, Marta was the last person to see him alive. She also has a solid alibi, having been seen leaving the house after her shift by several family members. But most importantly, Blanc loftily points out, Marta has a weakness that others do not have: She cannot lie. And not in the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree honour system sense. Marta literally cannot lie; the stress of doing so, even in the most minor way, causes her to projectile vomit, a theory proven several times throughout the film. In other words, she’s the perfect person to help sift through the family’s secrets.
Marta is in good company. She is one of three women in major blockbusters this year to have “vomits often” as part of her character description, joining Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle in Hustlers, and Naomi Scott’s Elena in Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels reboot. All of these women vomit several times throughout their respective films, usually in response to some outside stressor. In other words, they’re not puking because they’ve suddenly caught a stomach bug. They’re spewing out toxic vibes.
In Annabelle’s case, vomiting happens as a spontaneous response to anxiety. Whenever she’s in a distressing situation — like say, a male client nearly OD-ing on a dangerous combination of drugs and alcohol in the VIP room of a strip club — whatever she had for breakfast that day suddenly ends up on the front of her bodycon dress.
“When she's overwhelmed, she throws up. It's gross, but to me it's kind of cute and just sort of emphasises her childlikeness through physical manifestation,” Reinhart told Refinery29 in September. (If you were worried about poor Reinhart’s taste buds after all that puke, don’t be. “[The vomit] was crushed up animal crackers mixed with Sprite,” she said. “I don’t do well with those things. I don't like food mixed together. It really grosses me out, so I was worried that I was actually going to get sick from having to do that because the idea of soggy crackers in a liquid actually makes me want to vomit. But it wasn't bad — it wasn't like some weird gelatinous mixture. It tasted like Sprite-animal crackers.”)
Likewise, Charlie’s Angels’ Elena, a software engineer-turned-ersatz-spy, throws up in reaction to the severe stress brought on by her unusual circumstances. One day she’s just a young woman climbing the corporate tech ladder, the next she’s fighting for her life alongside a squad of millionaire-backed lady spies. That’s enough to make anyone anxious enough to puke, but it’s significant that this trait seems built into her character to the point that others remark on it. By the end of the film, when Elena has completed her training, fellow Angel Sabina (Kristen Stewart) actually marvels at the fact that she hasn’t thrown up after jumping out of a plane.
While we seem to be reaching a zenith of puke content, women have a long, proud history of on-screen vomit that spans everything from Linda Blair’s stream of demon green puke as Regan MacNeil in 1973’s The Exorcist to Chloe Grace Moretz wielding the Kick Ass 2 “Sick Stick” against her mean girl bullies. (And let’s not forget Anna Camp throwing up her taco cart lunch all over the third row in Pitch Perfect!)
And then there was the year it seemed like everyone on TV — from Hannah Horvath’s mom Loreen on Girls reacting to her pregnancy, to Big Little Lies’ Madeline Martha McKenzie during a double date with her ex-husband and Bonnie — was hurling mid-episode. As Jen Cheney wrote over at Vulture in March 2017, “That’s right, America: Not only have we hit Peak TV, we may have hit Peak Puke TV.” (In fact, Girls was a pioneer of the genre, causing the New York Times to write about the proliferation of puke as far back as 2014.)
As Cheney noted in her essay, maybe the reason it’s used so often nowadays is that it’s the perfect narrative ploy: It’s a reflex we have very little control over, and represents the body expelling something that does not belong there. In other words, it’s rife with easy symbolism.
But beyond convenience, there’s something particularly interesting about the context in which vomit is being used in recent films. (Not to mention timing — two of them, Knives Out and Charlie’s Angels, will be out just in time for that post-Thanksgiving feast trip to the movies.) While the women of 2011 Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph comedy Bridesmaids quite literally lost their lunch due to food poisoning, the delicate stomachs of this year’s queasy stars are due more to psychosomatics than actual illness.
This sort of stress response is actually more common than you think. Studies have linked gastrointestinal issues to anxiety and depression, and experts note that existing conditions can be exacerbated by “flight or fight” response to outside stressors. “Any stomach distress, like ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome—that’s all exacerbated by anxiety,” Ken Goodman, spokesperson with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) told Vice in 2018. “Anxiety can cause your body to tighten up anywhere between the mouth, the windpipe, and all the way down [to the gastrointestinal tract], so it can feel like you can’t breathe, or you’re getting sick.”
Certainly, seeing conventionally attractive movie stars violently vomit unexpectedly is still pretty shocking, not to mention amusing. And this recent cluster of women characters have puke written into their narrative arc as a repeat gag that doesn’t feel like it’s at their expense, unlike Camp’s Pitch Perfect puking. But there’s also something about three young women vomiting on cue that feels distinctly 2019, a year that has been full of upheavals, to put it mildly. These characters aren’t just throwing up casually because of a bad sandwich, or an illness. Their trigger vomiting is built into the narrative, almost as a character trait.
Vomiting falls squarely into the category of “the abject,” a term coined by philosopher Julie Kristeva in her famous essay “Powers of Horror,” to define one’s accidental confrontation with “corporeal reality.” Translation: it’s whatever makes you realise that a person is a physical being, with physical needs and bodily functions. (Also included: semen, period blood, shit, urine, pus — you get the idea.) In Knives Out, Hustlers and Charlie’s Angels, the characters chosen to host this trait are all ingenues, historically depicted as paragons of womanhood. Imagine if instead of falling into a deep and peaceful sleep to wait for true love’s kiss, Snow White had instead projectile vomited that poison apple core all over the old crone and went right back to cleaning house for the dwarfs. We don’t want to think about these kinds of women existing in a bodily sense — they are beatific peons of potential motherhood! (All of which happens painlessly, and with a full-face of makeup, of course.)
Giving young women the ability to reclaim that physical part of themselves, to own it as comic-relief in the same way men have for decades (I Love You Man notably has two major barf-tastic moments. Emetophobics, beware!), is empowering and freeing. It falls squarely into the growing trend of women’s potty humour kicked off by Bridesmaids nearly a decade ago.
What’s more, it’s significant that these ingenues aren’t being shown vomiting in the context of an eating disorder, a common trope that has dominated women’s narrative arcs in the past.
It’s not even really gendered in any way. Two of these films are written and directed by women (Hustlers and Charlie’s Angels), one by a man (Knives Out). These characters aren’t vomiting because they’re women. They’re vomiting because they’re human beings with volatile stomachs grappling with crazy circumstances, and for once, women get to be at the nexus of those events. Theirs is a vomit with specific intent. Rather than cry, or whine, or bear the pain silently and with a smile, as so many ingenues have in the past, their trauma is physically acknowledged, then purged. Out with the old, and in with the new.